By Janet Kurland, LCSW-C, Senior Care Specialist
In my work helping older adults and their families plan for the future and deal with the changes that aging brings, families frequently ask me what are the most important documents for seniors. I ask them if their “paperwork” is in place. We all worry about what we’ll do if something happens to a loved one – such as a fall, an illness, a financial crisis, a cognitive change. Now suddenly, quickly, help is needed, and the family must respond. At such times, are we aware of what our elder’s preferences are? Are we legally able to participate in necessary decisions?
Preparing several specific documents in advance will ensure that the family will be ready to act when a sudden change or crisis occurs.
A Durable Power of Attorney is a major tool, by which one person, “the principal,” (the elder) grants powers to another person to act legally on his/her behalf. The durable power is often used to authorize financial transactions and property management. It is similar to a Power of Attorney, except that it remains in effect even after the person giving the power is no longer considered competent to handle his/her own affairs. A Durable Power of Attorney is particularly desirable in cases of dementia. It must be executed while the principal still has the cognitive ability to understand what the Durable Power of Attorney means. In other words, to act on behalf of a person who is not competent, you must obtain a “Durable” Power of Attorney; a simple Power of Attorney will not work.
Another very important document is a Living Will or Advance Directive. This legal document permits individuals to instruct their physicians in advance about the extent to which they wish to have life-sustaining procedures withheld in the event of a terminal illness. Advance Directives are intended to provide direction to a designated “agent” to speak on behalf of a person who is unable to speak for himself, due to physical or cognitive injury.
Both of these documents are comprehensive and should be executed in consultation with an eldercare lawyer. Of course, it is also important to include conversations with trusted family members and with medical professionals. Once the documents are completed, copies should be given to the lawyer, the physician and appropriate individuals, including family members, friends and designated agents.
It is recommended that legal permission be given to a trusted person or persons with whom the elder’s doctors may share information.
The third document, perhaps the one with which we are the most familiar, is the Last Will and Testament. This should be also be completed with the assistance of a legal professional. Again, make sure the appropriate persons know where it is.
When that “Something” happens, we are all under stress. Our task is to be with our loved ones. Having these documents in place will help guide the family as well as caregivers when the need arises. The elder’s wishes have been legally documented. By preparing these documents in advance, we gain peace of mind and the knowledge that we are respecting our elders’ wishes.
By Janet Kurland, LCSW-C, Senior Care Specialist, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.